There has been a rising interest in Indian Science Fiction in recent years, with a number of critical studies and articles being published. Suparno Banerjee’s book, Indian Science Fiction: Patterns, History and Hybridity, marks a key milestone in this trend.

An attempt to critically analyse the history and structure of Indian Science Fiction is not an easy endeavour, with a number of challenges that need to addressed even before proceeding.

The first challenge, of course, is to define Science Fiction. A controversial topic that never fails to ignite debate, SF as a genre has been defined in myriad ways, with Wikipedia alone providing nearly 40 definitions under the entry, “Definitions of Science Fiction”, ranging from Hugo Gernsback’s, simplistic “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” to Tom Shippey’s candid “Science fiction is hard to define”.

Add to this numerous scholarly articles, dissertations as well as other genres of non-mimetic literature whose defining boundaries can and often do overlap with Science Fiction, and the task of defining SF indeed looks daunting.

The task of putting borders around what Indian Science Fiction is adds another dimension to this challenge. For while historically some of the works in this genre may have been written by authors who lived in parts of the subcontinent that are no longer part of the Indian nation, in the present era, there are authors, who, while not living in India, are part of the Indian diaspora, and whose writing still bear a cultural context that is distinctly Indian.

The last challenge is that of languages. Given the number of languages in India, each with its own literary heritage, it is perhaps impossible to construct a complete story of Indian SF without a thorough inspection of the SF literature available all of them. Since this requires a level of multilingualism that may be difficult to achieve, translations could have acted as a reasonable secondary source. Unfortunately, however, not much of indigenous SF has been translated into English or other Indian languages .

Laying out the roadmap

Banerjee addresses the first challenge of defining SF by “demarcating a discursive territory that is clear enough for building a cohesive argument, but also fluid enough to indicate the contingent nature of such arguments”, balancing the dialectical tension between a strict definition that penalises creativity and a nebulous one that prevents critical analysis.

Starting his analysis on the foundation of Darko Suvin’s definition of SF as a literary device that utilises the dissonance between cognition and estrangement to create a “novum” that “radically differentiates the universe of the story from the continuation of the author’s real world”, Banerjee thereafter introduces the thoughts of other important critics such as Atterby, Rieder and Miéville to counterbalance the shortcomings in Suvin’s dialectical approach.

The second challenge of what constitutes the “Indian” in Indian SF is put to rest by the author through the simple expedient of declaring his intent to extend his coverage to not only SF produced in the Republic of India, but also, for historical purposes, areas in the Indian subcontinent that were part of British Dominion before 1947, as well as the global Indian diaspora. However, he excludes from his study any SF literature coming out of post-1947 Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the diaspora of these countries.

Given the near-impossibility of analysing SF produced in multiple languages, Banerjee is compelled to “primarily focus on four language traditions – Bangla, English, Hindi and Marathi”. Alhough he does mention works and authors from other languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Assamese, and Kannada, the body of his work remains primarily based on these four language traditions, raising the possibility of some degree of incompleteness and bias.

History and evolution

Banerjee traces back the history of Indian SF to as early as 1835, the year that KC Dutt’s A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945 was published. Using this as his starting point he builds his timeline up to 2019, dividing it into four distinct periods, namely, 1835-1905, 1905-47, 1947-95, and 1995-2019.

The first of these periods, marked by stories such as Dutt’s and scientist JC Bose’s Bangla story, Niruddesher Kahini (Story of a Disappearance, 1896), was, according to Banerjee, the direct outcome of the British education systems established in 1835. It was also during this period that the first Hindi SF, Pandit Ambika Datta Vyasa’s Ascharya Vrittant (A Strange Tale) was published.

The second period, whose beginning coincides with the publication of Begum Rokeya’s landmark story of a feminine utopia, Sultana’s Dream, also saw the publication of another important SF story, Rahul Sankrityayan’s socialist utopia Baisvee Sadi (The Twenty-Second Century, 1924) in Hindi. This period was marked by a slow consolidation of SF as a genre, its acceptance into a wider range of India languages and stories with influences of techno-scientific themes, such as gadgets, mad scientists, lost worlds, and fantastic adventures.

Banerjee terms the third period the “golden age” of Indian SF, as during this period, not only was there a sharp rise in the number of SF stories in many Indian languages, fuelled by a growth in magazine culture, but the SF narrative also became more malleable through interaction with indigenous epistemology and storytelling.

Notably, it was this period which saw the establishment of the first exclusive Indian SF magazine, Ashchosjo, by Adrish Bardhan in 1963. It was also during this time that Marathi SF became an established genre, with critical contributions from authors such as Bal Phondke and the eminent astrophysicst JV Narlikar, whose foray into SF started with the story Krishna Bibar (Black Hole, 1974).

The fourth period, starting in the 1990s, saw the rise of English language SF, and while Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, which won the Arthur C Clarke award in 1995, marked a key milestone, there were other significant contributions such as Ruchir Joshi’s The Last Jet-Engine Laugh (2001), Vandana Singh’s Delhi (2004) and Rimi B Chatterjee’s Signal Red (2005). The latter part of this period also saw a number of new SF magazines, including the Kolkata-based Kalpabishwa and the Delhi-based Mithila Review. Some of the notable developments were a move towards stories with more critical self-reflection, and a visible shift in the gender composition of the authors.

Narrative elements

In addition to its historical development Banerjee analyses Indian SF from the perspective of four major narrative elements. These include the epistemology used for world building, the treatment of time in the narrative, the space in which the narrative is set up, and the non-human characters that perform narrative actions.

Bannerjee first analyses the basis for world building in Indian SF, and after examining works such as JC Bose’s Story of a Disappearance (Bangla, 1896) Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shanku stories (Bangla, 1961-92), Narlikar’s The Return of Vaman (Marathi, 1989), Dinesh Chandra Goswami’s collection of stories The Hair Timer ( Assamese, 2011) and Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome as examples, suggests it is a competitive narrative space where three distinct epistemological systems, namely, western techno-science, Indian traditional and philosophical systems, and regional subaltern systems of knowledge, jostle for primacy.

He then looks into the context of time Indian SF, and after examining works such as Lakshmi Nandan Bora’s Kayakalpa: The Elixir of Life (Assamese, 2010), Ambika Datta Vyasa’s A Strange Tale (Hindi, 1884), Boman Desai’sThe Memory of Elephants (1988) , Vandana Singh’s Delhi (2004) and With Fate Conspire (2018) and Adrish Bardhan’s Professor Natboltu Chakra stories (Bangla), points out that while in Indian SF the past is often variously imagined as a “golden era”, a period of resistance to colonialism, or even a challenge to monolithic traditions, the imagined futures often reflect both the hopes and fears of a people aspiring to geopolitical recognition while battling against multiple inequalities against a backdrop of technological progress.

Along with time, the concept of an imagined space, distinct from the author’s own reality, is an important element of any SF literary work. With respect to the treatment of imaginary spaces in Indian SF, Banerjee identifies what he feels is a distinctive trait by pointing out that while traditionally imperialism has always left an uneasy shadow on SF, “unlike Euro-American SF, Indian SF rarely presents an expansionist universe and colonising missions, probably because India was a destination of such colonising missions”.

Banerjee draws upon Fredric Jameson’s and Tom Moylan’s theories of utopia and dystopia, as well as works such as Subodh Jawadekar’s A Journey into Darkness (Marathi, 1993) and Suniti Namjoshi’s Mothers of Maya Diip (1989), to demonstrate, in contrast , the strong utopian and dystopian elements in Indian SF, where authors reimagine an India where a multiplicity of oppressive forces have and are still fuelling conflict.

The final narrative element that Banerjee discusses is the use of non-human agents of narrative action. Aligning his approach to the works of Stuart Hall, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Donna Haraway, and analysing Indian SF works such as Satyajit Ray’s Bankubabu’s Friend (Bangla, 1962), Vandana Singh’s Of Love and Other Monsters (2007) and Samit Basu’s Turbulence (2012), he argues that these agents, coming in a variety of forms such as clones, cyborgs, AIs, mutants and alien creatures, are based upon projections of a number of societal alienations – ranging from the alienation of the subaltern citizen from the state, to the alienation of an immigrant in a new culture.

Banerjee also draws attention to examples such as Laxman Londhe and Chintamani Deshmukh’s Devamsi Jive Marile (Marathi, 1990) and Sami Ahmad Khan’s Aliens in Delhi, (2017) to point out that these agents could sometimes just be allusions to foreign invaders.

Although the author does not claim have created a book that attempts to “encompass the whole of the Indian national tradition” of SF, he has definitely been successful in evoking our interest in the historical evolution and broad patterns of the genre. This, one hopes, will encourage future authors to embark upon studies of similar nature.

Sumit Bardhan has built data science software used by many institutions. He also reads and writes science-fiction in Bengali, and has published two books, Arthatrishna, the first ever work of steampunk in Bengali SF, and Nakshtra Pathik.

Indian Science Fiction Patterns, History and Hybridity

Indian Science Fiction: Patterns, History and Hybridity, Suparno Banerjee, University of Wales Press.